The list of nominees for the first ever FIFA Ballon d’Or award is unsurprisingly dominated by attacking players, but the latest odds show that it is creative midfielders and multi-faceted forwards, rather than out-and-out strikers, who continue to enjoy top billing in the glamour stakes.
Of the five favourites to win the award, only one - Diego Forlán – is a striker, and his goal-getting counterparts Didier Drogba, Miroslav Klose and Asamoah Gyan can all be found towards the longer end of the betting. It confirms a growing trend. In the last five years in which the Ballon d’Or has been awarded, Thierry Henry (third in 2006) and Fernando Torres (third in 2008) are the only classic strikers to have made it onto the podium.
The contrast with the previous five years is telling. Between 2000 and 2005, strikers Michael Owen (2001), Ronaldo (2002) and Andriy Shevchenko (2004) all won the award, with Shevchenko finishing third in 2000, Raúl coming runner-up to Owen in 2001 and Henry taking second place behind attacking midfielder Pavel Nedvěd in 2003.
Clearly, to draw any strong conclusions from something as unscientific as an end-of-year award would be foolish and, indeed, the number of strikers on this year’s shortlist (six) is only marginally less than it was in 2000′s top 23 (seven). What seems apparent, however, is that pure marksmen are being quietly superseded by versatile attackers such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who, despite scoring with astonishing frequency, habitually attack from withdrawn roles on the flanks and for whom the umbrella term ’forward’ is just about the only positional designator that can be applied with any accuracy.
Forlán, David Villa, Thomas Müller and Ballon d’Or favourite Wesley Sneijder finished neck-and-neck (-and-neck-and-neck) in the race for the World Cup Golden Boot, but Forlán occasionally played behind Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani in Uruguay’s 4-3-1-2, Villa scored all his goals while playing from the left for Spain, Müller was deployed on the right side of a 4-2-3-1 for Germany and Sneijder played as an advanced attacking midfielder. In club football, Ronaldo normally plays on the left side of a 4-2-3-1 for Real Madrid, with Messi typically playing either from the right or as a ‘false nine’ in Barcelona’s 4-3-3.
Of the players that didn’t make the shortlist, Diego Milito’s absence was the most perplexing and his consistently decisive 32-goal haul for Internazionale last season proves that the penalty box predator is far from obsolete. Nevertheless, the number nine shirt is no longer the prized garment it once was.